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They put WHAT on the animal skins to soften it?!

An Investigation of Possible Wampanoag

Hidetanning Techniques

The purpose of this work is to review the process of hide tanning in general and specifically the evidence of how the Wampanoag most likely tanned their animal hides. Generally hide tanning involves four basic steps: fleshing, braining, stretching, and smoking. Fleshing will remove the left over fat, meat and the inner membrane from the hide so that essentially the hide will not rot. If the hide is removed from the animal carefully, personally it has been found that this is not a difficult step. Commonly, among other groups such as the Ojibwa, this step is accomplished by the use of a bone-fleshing tool. This tool is a longbone of a larger animal broken and worked down to a chisel edge. The details of what this tool looks like are not too important since it appear that the Wampanoag and the groups around them did not use these.

No examples of these sorts of tools have ever been found at any of the archaeological sites in Massachusetts. Part of this lack of bone fleshers may have to do with preservation, since bone will not last by itself in the ground more than a few hundred years, but the lack of even a fragment being found ever by anyone leads to the conclusion that they were not used. Although, they have been found among the Iroquois and further west, but not around here. Interestingly, the Turner Farm site in Maine did yield some worked bone which Bruce Bourque has identified as possibly being for hide scraping, but these date to about 3000 years ago and are noticeably absent from the later assemblages (Bourque 1995: 131).


This discussion of course leads to the question of how was the fleshing done. There are two possibilities. The first is that the women used a tool made out of wood or other materials such as quahog or surf clam shells to accomplish the task. The wooden fleshing tool is illustrated by Speck in his work among the Penobscot. The shell tools would be less noticeable in the archaeological record since they would not require any modification to make it into a tool. The shells could possibly be used as they were and subsequently would be harder to identify when a site was excavated.

There is also one fragment of what appears to be a shell with a serrated edge from the Browne site that may have served as a hide scraper. Shell really is not hard enough to have served as a cutting or bone-working tool so a serrated edge shell could only have limited applications. Further on site testing needs to be done to discover if the shell works for fleshing hides.

The second step of fleshing as the hide dries, would be scraping with the stone scraper. This would remove any membrane left and start to soften the hide as well. Numerous stone scrapers have been found archaeologically, showing the wear and polish from hide scraping, exactly matching the polish and wear we see on stone scrapers presently in use at Plimoth Plantation's Hobbamock's Homesite. At least four have come from the RM site (PL 521) located about 400 yards from Hobbamock's Homesite. While it is not usually easy to date these scrapers since their form appears to have been related to function and did not change too much over time, one scraper is made from a large Atlantic blade whose tip was broken off. Close examination reveals very rounded edges matching those from the Homesite tools. Other sites in the Plimoth Plantation collections are still being looked at to discover other hide scraper shapes

The fleshing could be done with the hide stretched and staked out on the ground or holes can be poked with a bone awl along the edge of the hide about 1/3 inch in and spaced 3 inches apart around the perimeter. Fleshing a hide on the ground was probably the preferred method among native people living in areas where enough wood for erecting hide tanning racks was not available. In the Wampanoag are, the women probably used wooden frames lashed together with bark or cordage. When fleshing on a rack, into the holes would be passed leather thongs about 9 feet long to secure the hide onto a frame and then it would be scraped down.

Schwaegel says that the 20 pieces need to be cut and those are tied to the frame about 1-1 12' feet apart. The frame is placed on the ground and the hide is then placed within it to center it. The hide is then tied on. Once the hide has been fleshed it is in a condition commonly known as "raw hide". This hide is now clean but will be very hard if it dries out. At this point several options were available to the native woman. She could begin to condition the hide and make it soft by braining it, she could dehair it to make leather, she could store it as raw hide for future use, or it could be used in this state for items such as quivers. This is also the state at which a man might trade hides such as beaver, otter, marten and muskrat to Europeans, at which stage the hides would be called fells by the English. So in the 1627 inventory of the trading house at Manamet, furs and fells are listed, essentially these are both tanned and raw hides.


If a woman wanted to strip the hair off the hide to make leather, the process is quite simple. She would place the hide in a swift moving river or stream for a day or two until the hair essentially easily pulls out. The hide will not rot since the river is moving and the hair would be washed away as it was loosened. She, of course, would have to weigh down the hide or attach it to stakes with cordage to insure that it would not be washed down stream. The amount of time the hide is left in the water would vary but an Ojibwa method says to leave it there for three days and three nights then take it out, wrung out and either place it on a log and scrape it or tie it to a tree and scrape it. The hide should be kept off the ground as this will get it dirty and spoil the whiteness. Following this step the hide is damp and needs to be brained.


Evidence for the use of brains for something, likely hide tanning, comes from the Lambert Farm site in Warwick, Rhode Island. At this site the left parietal lobe, basically the left side, of the deer skulls was smashed open for the removal of the brain. The colonists at Plimoth stated that in 1620 when exploring on Cape Cod they entered a native home and saw "...two or three deer's heads, one whereof had been newly killed, for it was still fresh." (Winslow 1963:29). These may have been heads that were waiting to have their brains and other parts removed. Brains can be spread out in the sun to dry and stored in bags if they will not be immediately used, or else they can be used fresh. In the Ojibwa method, a dried brain was simmered in water with a little fat added. Other methods talk about mashing the brain up, boiling it until it is a grey white color, about 10-15 minutes with one brain and 3/4-1 gallon of water, and soaking the skin in it (McPherson 1986:23). Obviously, unless one has a container large enough to soak a deer or moose skin in they are not going to do it this way. Schwaegel speaks of mashing the brains up and applying this directly to the skin, no boiling needed (Schwaegel 1985:101). Both sides of the hide would be brained if making leather, and just the inside of it if the hair is left on. Either the Ojibwa method of boiling a dried brain and rubbing it on or Schwaegel's method can be used. The reference does not state what the Ojibwa would do if the hide was to be tanned right away, probably they would do what Schwaegel does. The hide was then sprinkled with warm water, rolled up tightly and left over night in a dry place, it does not matter if it is cool or warm. In the seventeenth century the back of the house or some unused space within the house would have been ideal because it would keep the dogs and scavengers from getting at the hide. The next morning the hide was unrolled, sprinkled again with warm water and wrung out. As a note, the Ojibwa method says that wringing involved "grasping the head end of the hide in the right hand and tightly winding the hide around the right hand wrist and arm."(Ibid:98) The hide is then placed on the ground and both sides are rolled up the center and the hide is twisted into a rope. The rope is placed around a small tree and the ends are tucked. A stick three feet long is placed into the loop and the skin is wrung and stretched. (Ibid:98-99) Figure 5 shows Schwaegel's illustration of this. He also recommends letting the skin sit in the sun after wringing to let the oils penetrate even more. The Ojibwa method recommends scraping the hide after wringing and drying to even out the grain and remove and flesh, liquid or hair. A rough stone such as some sandstone scrapers that have been found archaeologically could be used. It is not known if the Wampanoag women would use an inclined log for this step the way the Ojibwa and Penobscot would.


The hide is then hand stretched using the hand and feet to restore it to the original size. This is followed by placing the hide on the rack again and scraping it with the stone scraper to beam it or make it soft, this may require 2-3 hours. Schwaegel does not beam his hides at this stage, instead he stakes them. They are placed on the frame and a wooden paddle or stake is pressed into the hide to stretch it. One continues staking the hide until it is warm and dry, probably about 2-3 hours. This is done in the shade so the hide does not dry too fast.


Following this the hide is soft and white. All sources, Ojibwa, Penobscot, Algonquin and Schwaegel agree that the if one wants to smoke the hide, the next step is to sew it up into a cone and place it over a smoky fire. Archaeologically Binford has found evidence of "smudge pits" in the Eastern United States which were filled with carbonized corn cob remains (Binford 1967). Features at sites such as the RM site are long trenches about 1 meter long and shallow and look very similar to the trench illustrated in Gibby's method book (Gibby 1991:12). The Ojibwa method says it is sewn with basswood cordage and inverted over a tripod frame erected over a shallow hole 1 foot wide 6 inches deep. The hide could also be suspended from a tree branch or a stick placed at a 45 degree angle to the hole. The lower end is staked down after a good bed of hot coals is achieved and some corn cobs, rotten wood, crushed cedar bark or sumac are placed on top. A small channel is also dug from the edge of the fire so that air can get into it. When the desired color is achieved the hide is taken off and turned inside out. The whole process may take as little as a half hour. One is then left with a tanned hide. This final step puts the tannic acid from the sumac, corn cobs etc., into the hide and is the real "tanning" step, the rest is just conditioning. If the hide is not smoked it will be bright white and if it gets wet will return to the raw hide state.

So the steps are:

1) getting the hide off the animal

2) fleshing to remove the parts that will rot

2a) stripping the hair off

3) braining with associated wringing

4) stretching staking

5) smoking

A hide does not need to go through all of these steps to be useful though. Smaller hides such as fox, raccoon, and mink were often rubbed only with the oil from the skin, no brains needed and they could be worked on ones lap, no frame required. Speck also mentions that the Penobscot would not even tan Moose skin for moccasins: "To make waterproof moosehide for moccasins....the left the hide raw but kept it for a long time well greased with moose or deer tallow. The more it absorbed the more waterproof it became." (Speck 132). The tallow would be the grease made from boiling the broken bones of the animals to render the fat from the marrow. It makes sense not to invest a great deal of time on tanning leather for moccasins since they wear out faster than other clothing. This was probably also done with deer skin in our area. This statement by Speck corroborates well with Denys 1672 description of life in a Micmac hunting camp where he states that "(the women) collected all of the bones of the moose, pounded them to a powder; then they placed them in their kettle, and made them boil well. This brought up the grease that rose to the top of the water, and they collected it with a wooden spoon. They kept the bones boiling until it yielded nothing more, and with such success that from the bones of one moose, without counting the marrow, they obtained 5-6 pounds of grease as white as snow, and firm as wax." Denys states that they used it as food, but it also could have been used for greasing moccasins.

The only historical records for the Wampanoag and their neighbors discussing hide tanning are in vague references such as Thomas Morton "(they) make the skins plume and soft, some they dress with the hair on and some with the hair off, the hairy side in winter they wear near their bodies, warm weather they wear the hair outwards. They have other (skins) made of moose skins which beast is a great large deer so big as a horse their skins they commonly dress bare and wonderfully white" (Morton 1972:28). John Josselyn appears to have been fortunate enough to have traveled with some natives to hunt moose and observed that "The women tend the cookerie, some of them scrape the slime and fat from the skin, cleanse the sinews..."(Josselyn1988:98). Roger Williams is the final reference to tanning and care of hides " ...shoes and stockings they make of their deer skin worne out, which yet being excellantly tann'd by them, is excellant for to travel in wet and snow; for it is so well tempered with oyle, that the water cleane wrings out; and being hang'd up in thier chimney, they presently drie without hurt..." (Williams 1973:186). The Natick dictionary gives us the words which native people in that area would have called their skins: Skin: wuskon, uskon, askon- a raw hide or undressed skin; ohkon- a skin dressed and prepared to use as clothing (Trumbull 1903:322).

What was hoped to be done in this work was to give a possible reconstruction of the ways in which the native women of New England, especially the Wampanoag, tanned their animal skins to make clothing. Clothing is such an integral part of everyday life in the seventeenth century as well as today, that early observers of the native culture may have considered it too common to describe. Today, we wish they had not considered it so, we wish that they would have " labored on the point" a little longer when many of them felt they had labored too long. Using a combination of archaeology, historical analogy and experimental archaeology, a working synopsis of the steps and techniques possibly used by the Wampanoag has been achieved. What we now have is a practical model so one can experience the amount of time and work involved for a Wampanoag woman to make leather, and it makes us respect them even more.

Appendix I


There are no real seventeenth century accounts of how the Wampanoag women tanned their animal skins, what follows is based on archaeological information, modern hide tanning techniques and some historical accounts. For a more detailed investigation of Wampanoag hide tanning see the longer version of this rerort above.

The steps in making a mammal skin soft enough for clothing are:

1) getting the hide off the animal

2) fleshing to remove the parts which will rot

2a) stripping the hair off

3) braining with associated wringing

4) stretching, staking

5) smoking

1) Getting the hide off the animal can take two forms, casing the animal where the skin

in peeled off like taking a sock off by making a vertical cut at the neck, and

slicing the skin chin to rear end and yanking it off.

2) Smaller hides (rabbit, squirrel, mink, raccoon, etc.) can be fleshed on your lap of on

a small circular frame. Larger hides have holes pierced along the edges every

three inches about 13 of an inch towards the center of the hide. The hide is then

fleshed. Fleshing the hide involves the probable use of larger stone scrapers made

of softer granite or sandstone to remove the fat and membrane. These scrapers

possibly could be hafted in a handle. A wooden paddle could also be used (about

1 12' long with a serrated edge).

2a) After all of the membrane is removed, the hair can be stripped off by soaking it in

water for 3 days, changing the water each day.

3) With the hide on the rack, the brains of the animal are either boiled or mashed and

then spread on the inside of a skin with the hair on or both sides of a dehaired

skin. A smooth stone can be used to work the brain in. The skin is sprinkled with

water, rolled up tightly and left overnight to let the brains soak in.

4) It is then taken, sprinkled with warm water again and wrung to remove any

moisture and it is then put back on the frame and staked stretched with a wooden

paddle. This is continued until the hide is warm and dry, usually 3-4 hours. This

should be done in the shade so it does not dry too quickly.

5) The resulting hide is white and is then sewn into a cone and placed over a smoky

fire pit with a smoldering fire of sumac, rotten hickory or oak, or corn cobs. This

step takes up to 30 minutes. The hide is turned inside out and the other side is


Appendix II


1) Fleshing: Using fleshing tool, see below, scrape the inside of the hide to remove the fat

and membrane.

2) Dehairing: Soak the hide in clear water for three days and 3 nights, then lay it over a

scraping log or attach it to a tree and scrape it to remove the hair, cut the long hair

off and scrape the others. The tool is used by pushing it away from the worker

against the grain of the skin

3) Braining: Soak the damp hide in a mixture of deer brains and water. If the brains will

not be used immediately when removed from the head, they can be spread out

on a mat or skin to dry and saved, they are then reconstituted by simmering in

water with a little fat, soak the dry hide and then rub the brains in. Both methods

are followed by rolling the hide tightly and leaving it overnight. The hide is then

unrolled and sprinkled with water and then wrung by grasping the head end and

tightly wrapping the hide around the right hand, wrist and arm.

4) Stripping: The hide is thrown over a rod or the top of the drying rack, and both sides

are rolled up towards the center back and the hide is twisted into a rope. This

rope is then placed around a tree and the ends are overlapped and rolled together.

A round stick 3' long is inserted and twisted tightly up to the tree. This procedure

wrings the hide and stretches it.

5) Scraping: The hide is unrolled and placed over a smooth inclined log and both sides

are scraped with short strokes away from the body using a rough stone, such as


6) Stretching: This stage restores the skin to its original size. The stretching is done by

pulling the skin with the hands and feet in all directions. After it is stretched,

holes are placed 3" apart and the hide is attached to a stretching frame, hide

rack, with leather thongs or basswood fiber cordage.

7) Working Softening: With the hide hanging up, This is done to the hair side of the

hide. A stone scraper is used, pressure is applied to the scraper to break up the

cellular fiber, and this may take 2-3 hours. This process is continually done until

the hide is of an even thickness, soft, pliable, absolutely dry and no longer cool.

Any holes are sewn up when this is completed.

8) Smoking: the hide is sewn into a cylindrical shape to form a bag with basswood bark

cordage. Upper end is sewn shut. This bag attached to tree limb and is inverted

over a long tripod like frame over a shallow hole 1' wide 6" deep. The lower edge

of the hide pegged down. The woods which can be used are the soft inner bark of

pine trees, rotten pine, crushed cedar bark, birch bark packed with cones of white

pine or sumac.



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